Bahrain goes to polls in march toward democracy

Voters have cast ballots in Bahrain’s first election for representative bodies in nearly 30 years, marking another step in the Gulf nation’s transformation from absolute monarchy to democracy - and the first time Bahraini women were allowed to vote and run for office.

Voters have cast ballots in Bahrain’s first election for representative bodies in nearly 30 years, marking another step in the Gulf nation’s transformation from absolute monarchy to democracy - and the first time Bahraini women were allowed to vote and run for office.

Despite the excitement surrounding the polls and the participation of female candidates, the former British territory’s information minister said no women were elected to any of the 50 local seats up for grabs. Of some 306 candidates, 30 were women.

‘‘I am personally very sad (that no women were elected). The government and king will also be very disappointed because they (the female candidates) have run very aggressive election campaigns,’’ Nabeel Al Hamer told The Associated Press news agency.

Early today, justice minister Sheik Khalid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa announced that 28 of the 50 seats had been awarded to male candidates, while the 22 remaining positions would be decided in a second round of voting on May 16.

Candidates needed to win more than 50% of the votes in their districts to be elected. No female candidates were in the running for the 22 seats to be decided next week.

In a region ruled mostly by autocrats, scenes of Bahrainis clamouring to cast votes were striking. Men and women waited in long, separate lines in keeping with the country’s conservative Islamic traditions. Officials said turnout was heavier than expected, but did not immediately release voter figures.

More than 200,000 residents are eligible to vote, including citizens of neighbouring Gulf Co-operation Council states and foreigners owning property in the kingdom. Bahrain has a population of about 650,000 people.

‘‘Let me in, let me in!’’ shouted a bespectacled Maryam Mohammed Yousuf, 80, at a polling centre in the capital, Manama, that failed to open on time. She stood in line leaning on a metal walking stick and a younger female relative, her wrinkled face just visible through her black chador. Most of the women voters wore the head-to-toe robe.

‘‘As a loyal citizen I’ve been waiting for this opportunity all my life,’’ Yousuf said after she was at last able to vote. ‘‘This is a new birth for the nation, this is very, very, very, good.’’

The leap towards democracy was being closely watched throughout the Gulf. Bahrain’s eastern neighbour, Qatar, is the only other Gulf Arab state that allows women to run for office. Kuwait holds elections, but bars women from running for office.

Bahrain’s municipal elections are part of a process initiated by the king, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, last year to transform the island from a traditional emirate where he held absolute power to a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.

‘‘This is the first light and we hope that it leads us to a brighter future,’’ said Hassan Mushaima, a former dissident who voted in Daih, south of the capital. ‘‘It was a great experience and we are eagerly looking forward to the parliamentary elections.’’

Soon after Sheik Hamad succeeded his late father as ruler of Bahrain, he commissioned a National Action Charter providing for a parliament, an independent judiciary and a body to investigate public complaints.

In mid-February, a year after a nationwide vote approved the charter, Sheik Hamed declared a constitutional monarchy and scheduled legislative elections for October 24. He will, however, appoint one of the houses of the bicameral legislature.

Bahrain became independent from Britain in 1971. It last held elections for a representative body in 1973 when people voted for the National Assembly. That assembly was dissolved two years later.

The island state is aligned with the West and is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

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